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Silence is golden and so are these books


Thursday, January 11, 2018 1:25PM

How far would you go for absolute silence? As I write this column I am sitting in my office and every so often glance out my window at the falling snow. There are no cars on the road, the birds are snuggled in the hedges and not chirping, and for once Isabella, the eternally barking Chihuahua, is snoozing at my feet in her warm fleece bed. I have a white blanket of silence around me. It is actually quite lovely. However, as we all know, this type of silence is quite fleeting once the plows clear the roads, the appliances kick on, and Isabella awakens. The average person would treasure that moment of quiet and then resign herself, once again, to the inevitable encroachment of environmental noise.

Apparently, not everyone is that average person. In fact, when I began researching how writers handle silence I found so many books to read that it was hard to pull just three to review! One that I particularly enjoyed was “The Spirit of Silence: Making Space for Creativity” by John Lane. This book is not so much about absolute silence as it is about re-framing one’s life to drop the noisy trappings of the myths of consumption, the exaggerated importance of money, work that is not a positive experience and schooling that does not truly engage the passion of learning. To re-enchant a life and live in the spirit of silence requires one to develop appreciation of the commonplace, and embracing the virtues of slowing down and living fully with nature, slowness, meditation, and reverence for simple things we previously overlooked.

Poets are quoted, writers are referenced, and the creativity of staying quietly in one’s room by such revered persons as Hildegard de Bingen, Emily Dickinson, Paul Cezanne, and Giorio Morandi is extolled. You can be quite, in relative silence, and still create and live fully if you make that spirit of silence be part of you. Very philosophical, and important in the cult of speed in which we live.

Yes, slowing down is certainly a part of cultivating an essence of silence within no matter where we are or what we are doing. But, what of those harried souls that search so deeply for silence that they must eschew all social contact and most, if not all, of the trappings of the modern world?

Sara Maitland did just that in her quest for complete silence. “A Book of Silence” is a very appropriate title. Maitland was having none of the quiet room in the big house or even a secluded cabin on a couple of acres. Rather, she took to the highlands of Scotland, far from any human habitation to seek the exact silence she felt she desperately needed.

Did she ever have any dark moments in that silence? Once. She actually panicked when she was so completely alone by a loch. “Pan” the foundation of the word “panic”, Maitland states, is a Greek god that represents the whole force of the wild. It was this wild, primitive force that swelled up within her and drove her from the harsh desolation of the landscape and complete silence.

Yet, Maitland craved more. She writes about her journey to silence with a fresh spirit. She is enchanted with her freedom, her research into the history of silence, and her growing spirituality and capacity for prayer. I envy Maitland for her fortitude and her perseverance, but while I suspect I could replicate her adventures at least in part, too much of me is still coiled around the daily clutter of modern life. Perhaps one day, however, I may try a similar adventure for a while; but for now reading about her boundary-pushing pursuit of silence is really quite enough.

But, how about that extreme silence? It sounds very over-the-top. Yet, it really is not. Erling Kagge’s book “Silence In the Age of Noise” is a recount of how he found, and kept, his silence. Kagge is an explorer. He has been to both poles and to the top of Everest. When Kagge looks for silence he does not fool around. Rather, he straps on his skis, hitches a sled filled with a tent, a heater, and provisions, to a body harness, and slips across the Antarctic ice for 22 days to arrive at the center of that extreme southern point.

Kagge makes a clear point that his quest for silence is a protest to the rapid pace of this world, the excessive attention to silly things that mean very little in the overall scheme of this life, and the sadness of merely existing rather than fully living the life we are given. His philosophy is beautifully written and clearly from his heart. Kagge’s quotes from the poet William Blake and one of my favorite philosophers Soren Kierkegaard rounds out this compelling book on how one man acquired a place of silence in the absolute void of sound and then once he found that place, was able to keep it with him when he returned to an amended, but still viable life in the city of Oslo, Norway. It was quite an adventure.

These adventures and explorations are not books to just be read and placed on a shelf. Rather, they are, in my opinion, works of reference. I get caught up in the “noise” of my life and the world. I need those frequent reminders to turn down the sounds (the clutter of all kinds actually) and absorb that sense of stillness within that calms and renews the spirit. January is coming to an end, but it is still the first month of a new year. Breath in that blanket of white silence most of us experienced with the last snow storm and keep it in a little place inside you. Then, when you need it, take it out and shake it out, and wrap yourself in that cocoon of quite for even just a few moments. It will be worth it.

Elaine Holden is host of The Holding Hour on WSMN 1590 radio, New Hampshire Director of the National Right to Read Foundation, Director of The Reading Foundation, Senior Lecturer Rivier University Graduate Schools of Education and Psychology.